From: Drouth Issue 30, PUBLIC
James Kelman gave a reading at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 12 October 2008. He read from an early scene of his latest novel, Kieron Smith, Boy, in which wee Kieron gets carried away by tribal bigotry on his first of many visits to the Rangers ground.
Kelman’s reading was lively, entrancing at times, and the writer was pretty much at his performing best. In questions he was voluble, but as awkward as ever, maintaining his line over language, class and marginalisation, even in this, one of the most crassly populist, conservative of events on the literary calendar – and by conservative I mean ‘safe’ and orthodox. Overall the festival is comforting and reassuring rather than provocative or challenging. The full title of this year’s event was in fact The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, so there we have it.
Cheltenham is a huge festival – and is impressive in its own way. But it is hard to find people among the many presenting their work who are known, first and foremost, as writers: TV and Radio people dominate Cheltenham to the point that really it should be called a Media Festival rather than a literature festival. This is not meant to be elitist. But Kelman did seem to stick out like a sore thumb, not just because of his antinomian politics and his idiosyncratic formal integrity – but because he was a writer first and foremost. It struck me that literary festivals like this are not really ‘literary’ at all: they are about ‘books’ by famous people – but ‘book’ is not synonymous with ‘literature’, nor does it guarantee access to decent, careful or original thinking, let alone decent writing. Indeed, some of the sessions seemed only to offer a relatively cheap opportunity to see someone of fame in the flesh – books had little to do with it. The speakers seemed to be a part of the festival engine because they were good ‘presenters’, were good at the business of fame, of maintaining their media profile. There’s nothing morally wrong with that, per se. As much as anyone can, I appreciate the value of Richard Madeley, Maureen Lipman, Libby Purves, Roger Moore, Monty Don, Roy Hattersley, Jonathan Dimbleby, Dawn French, Sandi Toksvig, Tony Curtis, Chris Patten, John Prescott, Michael Parkinson, Raymond Blanc, Phil Jupitus, Ann Widdecombe and David Blunkett … but would any of these people class their broadcasting and writing as ‘literature’? In the broadest sense, yes, I suppose they could – in a world where the word ‘literature’ can mean anything written – and such a definition includes both Anna Karenina and the Argos catalogue.
But it is hard to imagine that Kate Adie and Ian Rankin – this year’s Guest Directors – were able to have ‘literature’ in mind much at all when (perhaps ‘if’) they drew up a list of speakers to invite. There were ‘serious’ writers of course: most impressive perhaps, the weathered Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk (who, as Chomsky points out, is one of the few journalists reporting the Iraq war who ventures beyond the Green Zone in Baghdad – see Failed States, p. 53). Creative writers were in evidence, such as Patience Agbabi, V. S. Naipaul, A. L. Kennedy, Jacqueline Wilson, Tom Paulin, Louis De Bernières, Michael Frayn, Andrew O’Hagan, Simon Armitage, Thomas Keneally and Alan Hollinghurst. The programme also featured creative writing workshops led by writers like Kate Clanchy, Glyn Maxwell, Stella Duffy and Gillian Slovo. This would be an impressive list were it not for the fact that for every Toni Morrison, there were gaggles of Gloria Hunnifords and Gyles Brandreths.
In conversation after his reading, Kelman said that he had been asked to be a part of the Cheltenham Festival’s ‘Man Booker 40’ readings, celebrating 40 years of a prize which Kelman won in 1994. These readings were to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The production team wanted to ‘vet’ the passage of work Kelman wanted to read. The festival, and the BBC, clearly wanted to ensure the ‘safety’ of the reading (a haughtily nervy strategy which seems all the more pathetic in the wake of the freedoms allowed, then withdrawn from, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross). Kelman reported that he told the BBC to FUCK OFF (Kelman’s words, my capitals). The Man Booker Prize panels finally featured winners John Banville, Penelope Lively, D. B. C. Pierre, Ben Okri and Graham Swift. Kelman instead delivered a solo reading, on his own terms, on stage with an old friend, Roxy Harris (academic and author of New Ethnicities and Language Use). Perhaps this was right: Kelman’s winning of the Booker prize was always problematic, not least for one of the judges, Julia Neuberger, who denounced his victory as a ‘disgrace’, and his novel How late it was, how late, as ‘inaccessible’ and ‘dull’. Alongside Esther Rantzen, Neuberger contributed to a panel on old age at Cheltenham this year: the world of ‘literature’ – whatever that might mean – is a small one.
Kelman’s decision to not co-operate with the BBC might seem haughty and self-defeating, were it not for the fact that his understanding and experience of the way the media works is fully Chomskian. To engage with the national media therefore, is almost always to be somehow compromised, to be coaxed ever so politely into submission, to give in to the judgement of anonymous authority figures, and their unqualified, damaging, latent, censorship. Language is Kelman’s battlefront, so any adjustment for anything other than his own artistic reasons would be a defeat. Kelman’s rejection of the BBC here, is a serious activation of Chomsky’s understanding of the subtle manipulation that a state-legitimising media engine will carry out in the defence of the status quo. Indeed, in the light of Kelman’s rejection, and Chomsky’s version of the relationship between a government and the media it regulates, the Cheltenham festival – with its ex-Ministers, Hollywood stars, TV chefs, comedians and presenters upon presenters upon presenters – is far more than merely ridiculous: it is downright insidious.
In answer to a question from the audience about how he manages to maintain such energy for his campaigning activism across a range of engagements, Kelman gave details of the social, artistic and political networks that opened up around him in Glasgow and London in the 1980s and 1990s. There are always, he said, deep links between serious artists and political activity. He seemed to imply that politics and art are not just in dialogue – they are inseparable. Possibly, I thought, for writers like Kelman, they are the same thing: both are activated in commitment. But this might seem to run counter to Kelman’s own words, from an interview in 2003:
Well, fiction and non-fiction are different and the thing about working in fiction, in creating art, is that there doesn’t have to be any intentional thing behind it, there isn’t anything aside from the act of creating the work. It’s not usually possible in the way I work anyway, the working methods. Quite a few of the essays in And The Judges Said only came about as papers for talks, so there was always a knowledge of where I was going before I began. That’s not the case at all in my fiction – there’s never any notion of getting to a certain point in the writing. It doesn’t happen. I mean you might have quite a clear political view personally, but it’s not going to really get into the way of the fiction. At a deeper level who or what the author is cannot help but flavour or colour the work in some way but that would be within the body of work.
Should we ever listen when an artist tries to tell us how to approach his art? What right does any artist have to govern critical approaches to the art they’ve made, but have relinquished to a public? Once a book is published, can’t we do what we want with it? Publication could be viewed as the handing over of an individual’s intellectual property to us all – for all of us to do what we want with it: use it, reject it, abuse it, love it, re-write it. A significant critical problem arises when a novelist like Kelman is as openly political, and as determinedly committed, as the above interview with Chomsky shows him to be, but then claims his work follows its own line of flight, without his intention, without his political will behind it. Should we read his novels in the light of his public comments – on the state, on global politics, on the arts, on cultural and social injustices of all kinds – or should we follow Kelman’s own dictum that his art is somehow separate from his personal politics? Kelman’s politics are not personal however: they are public and published, they are stimulating and enthralling for some; for others, they are downright awkward and annoying, and exactly the same descriptions have arisen in responses to his novels. If we take the simple line of separating Kelman’s public political stance from his artistic writing, might we be enacting a simplifying, bifurcating disservice to the political foundations of his novels? To not tie his novels to the increasingly widespread pronouncements he makes on all sorts of issues, might be to lose a whole range of complicating interpretive possibilities.
Kelman surely deserves to be treated in the round – especially as it is exciting to consider how his politics might enliven and sharpen his fictional worlds. Rather than focus my attention directly upon the fascinating and, as it turns out, prescient, dialogue printed here in The Drouth for the first time, I’d like to offer a brief reading of Kelman’s literary presentation of America, to see if there are any parallels between the political discussion with Chomsky, and America as it appears in his fiction.
Kelman’s sixth novel You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, was published in March 2004, exactly a year after the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and just a few months before this dialogue with Chomsky was conducted. The novel is a satire of America, voiced by a jocular member of the Glaswegian Diaspora, Jeremiah. Here, America is a place of both rich, inclusive multiculturalism, and the narrowing suspicion of difference – a suspicion policed by a paranoid US State. Foreignness is front and centre of this novel because the lead, Jeremiah, is a foreigner himself – a Glaswegian in the States – which means he is both in, and out of, his element. As in many of his short stories, Kelman’s novels often suggest that people are either leaving Glasgow – think of Tammas at the end of A Chancer, Sammy at the close of How late it was, how late – or are needing to leave and unable to do so – think of the ineffectual Patrick Doyle in A Disaffection, who struggles down the M74, only to abort the mission, and return home. In contrast, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free is not concerned with what makes people leave: it lives instead with the Diaspora – studies its freebooting rootlessness, its uncompromising wilfulness, and its depleted loneliness. The whole novel is structured as one night’s recollection as Jeremiah tragic-comically struggles against cold American elements to sort himself out with a passage back to Glasgow. But Glasgow is not home, and neither is America: as usual, Kelman does not allow sentimentality about place, identity or space. Although alienation from American life increases as the novel progresses, Scotland is not missed at all. Jeremiah is quite clear that the journey home will have ‘nothing to do with homesickness or notions of a motherland. Fuck the motherland’ (p. 25).
The novel amounts to one evening’s act of recovery – ‘memories to dump’ (p. 261) – as Jeremiah sifts through his American experience, concerning at its heart his recently estranged partner Yasmin and their daughter, a nameless four-year-old ‘wean’. It becomes clear that the ‘mystery’ of Yasmin (p. 403) will remain unresolved by the novel’s closure. Comedic though this novel is, and light though Jeremiah’s voice always is, the consciousness presented has a background of moving psychological pain.
Jeremiah is, by his own constant estimation, a ‘unassimiliatit furnir’. Whenever he mentions nationality, he resorts to an idiosyncratic quasi-phonetic presentation of the proper nouns, playfully denigrating the sanctity of those same national categories as he does so. So, when he spells ‘American’ ‘Uhmerkin’ (eg. p. 120), the visual rhyme with gherkin serves to tease, stretch and defamiliarise the idea of nation into a strange, phallic shape. But the more obvious presence of ‘merkin’ in the proudest of nation’s names is also disturbing: – a ‘merkin’ is an old word for an artificial vagina, or more commonly, a pubic wig – a cosmetic cover for venereal infection or infestation. The name then, might mask the corrupted prurience of a naïve nationalism. The sound of ‘Uhmerkin’ could represent an American pronunciation, or more likely, Jeremiah’s exaggerated comic parody of an American accent. The sardonic, alien quality of such presentation of nationality, is designed to present Jeremiah’s own alienation from nationhood: he is, officially an alien, but in his own terms ‘a member of the alienigenae’ (p. 81). And it seems he is alienated from all forms of nationalism, including any sentimental attachment to himself as a ‘Skatchman’ (Y H 6), the country of ‘Skallin’ (p. 15) or his ‘Skarrisch’ nationality (p. 12). In terms of nationality, Jeremiah is without ‘hame’ (p. 15). In the above interview, Chomsky and Kelman reveal concerns over national definitions, and the violence legitimised by grand categorisations. Anarchists and socialists have of course always harboured dreams of an end to nationality. In the dialogue, Chomsky quotes William Morris rejecting the possibility of the ‘end of history’. At the beginning of the 1885 Manifesto of the Socialist League, Morris was determined upon ‘change which would destroy the distinctions of class and nationalities’. Kelman is purposed to destroy exactly those same distinctions:
Entities like ‘Scotsman’, ‘German’, ‘Indian’ or ‘American’; ‘Scottish culture’, ‘Jamaican culture’, ‘African culture’ or ‘Asian culture’ are material absurdities. They aren’t particular things in the world. There are no material bodies that correspond to them. We only used those terms in the way we use other terms such as ‘tree’, ‘bird’, ‘vehicle’ or ‘red’. They define abstract concepts; ‘things’ that don’t exist other than for loose classification.
In You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, if phoneticisation is used for politics, it is also used to display the lead male’s intellectual playfulness. When Jeremiah phoneticises ‘individyouells’ for individuals, ‘sakyr’ for soccer, ‘tayyingallon’ for 10-gallon (p. 37, 94 and 97), he is doing so out of a playful joy in difference. Everybody he meets is a product of hybridity, of cultures joyfully, accidentally overlapping, meeting and mating. There is no such thing as a pure monologic national identity in the people Jeremiah has encountered in America; there is no centre of America, just as there is no ‘essence’ of American-ness.
The only body in the novel that seems to hold the idea of national purity in any esteem is the state machine. In order to manage its immigration problem, the America of this novel has formulated a system of colour ID cards which set down, in the most basic, primary terms, the aspects of an alien’s identity which the state determines are most important to that individual’s assimilation, or lack thereof. Jeremiah is constantly reminded of his status as an alien by the dystopian fact of his ‘Red Card’ (p. 11), which exposes him, to any ‘true-born’ American who wishes to ask to see documentation of his identity, as a socialist and an atheist (though he is, by his own estimation, ‘mair an anarchist … opposed to authority on principle, p. 12). Jeremiah is repeatedly exposed to – and so abused by – an alienating procedure that the State reinforces and polices. Kelman pushes the context of this novel a little into the future, and exaggerates American politics incrementally further to the right, satirising by implication political developments in the wake of terrorist attacks on the USA in September 2001, such as the US ‘Patriot’ Act of 2001, the ensuing ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere (this war on an abstraction can of course open fronts up everywhere – even under your bed). Following Chomsky’s lead, Kelman’s America is divided between an imperial state policed by and in the interests of a militarised, capitalised, ruling élite, and a relatively liberal, if blinkered and paranoid, populace of ordinary citizens.
For Jeremiah, alien by birth, by politics, by accent and by faith, the United States can only offer repeated reinforcement of that alienation, can only make him aware of the fragility of his existence, of his subjection to rules and stipulations of immigration management, unless of course he shifts his subject position to one which is acceptable to the state authority. Jeremiah’s first-person narrative could signal Kelman’s raising of the possibility that only ‘I’s can exist in the United States for those who are new to the country. Indeed Jeremiah’s encounters with the state seem only to be about securing his identity, ensuring every natural-born American knows, and has a right to know, who he is and what he might threaten America with, all in the name of domestic national security. In the novel’s subtle moves into dystopian political satire, and with deliciously subversive irony, unassimilatable Jeremiah becomes a Security operative in an airport, that most testy and fluid of borderlands, the space of internal borders, of moving peoples, of nationalities in febrile, populous contact.
Airports are always multilinguistic, multinational, always transient, always homeless, are spaces offering the promise of freedom but marshalling individuals more rigorously than anywhere else. As David Pascoe points out, after terrorist atrocities of the 1970s ‘airspace would officially become a police state whose electrified borders were crossed as one passed into the […] airport.’ The ‘security’ that airports and flying attempt to embody, is undermined in Kelman’s novel by a complex parodic interplay between gambling, flying and insurance. This is where Kelman implicitly reflects a widespread anxiety about flying in the wake of the September 2001 use of airplanes as vehicles of destruction. Taking a gamble himself, Kelman teases those anxieties into a comic shape. Jeremiah details at great length the history of ‘persian bets’ – persian being derivative of ‘perishing’. Again, the pun effects an implicitly topical critique of American intervention in Persia which could readily be described as perishing as a policy, and one which certainly has involved the perishing of many thousands of innocents. Back in the novel, persian bets see the American poor gamble on whether they will survive an internal, domestic flight or not. If they are injured or die, the ‘insurance’ – the gambling winnings – will be paid to their families. If they do not, they fly (pp. 91-4 and 115-22).
Kelman’s complex parody here is aimed at the sanctity of flying, and undercuts the modernist promise of supreme technological safety while simultaneously attacking the laughable but prevalent notion that America is a classless society. Airports become filled with gamblers waiting for a cheap flight on which they might make their fortune. There is therefore increased demand for airport security operatives (p. 128), and in the mad rush to secure airspace, even ‘libertarian socialist atheist’ Jeremiah is employed (p. 142). Through this conceit, Kelman also pokes his critical stick at the reliability of insurance companies, which fundamentally rely on odds and probabilities to survive in the capitalist market place. And he takes a satirical swipe at the airline industry, the health of which is always used as a yardstick to measure the wealth of capitalist economies, and the progress of society. One of the homeless poor comes to haunt the airport, pushing its shopping trolley and dissolving into thin air (no one is sure of ‘its’ gender). Jeremiah’s fellow low-level security guards draw on their various superstitious inheritances from their wide variety of cultures and become certain ‘it’ is a ghost. The exception is the existential rationalist Jeremiah who empowers it with the name ‘Being’. In a scene parodic of the widespread fear of terrorist plots and suicide bombings of airports, the Being unaccountably explodes into a conflagration of used lottery tickets ‘right inside the VIP suite’ in the airport terminal (p. 232).
More insidiously, hidden from the sight of low-ranking alien security officials like Jeremiah, airports are the site of ‘Patriot Holding Centres’ (p. 157), in which fresh immigrants are vetted and processed, rubber stamped or returned to sender. The immigrant is squeezed in the coldpress of a state machine which cannot brook what the novel offers in bucketloads: the heat and mixtures of plural multiculturalism. Jeremiah revels in his own Glaswegian language variety – this novel is peppered with more Gaelic, Scots idiom and quasi-phonetic spelling than any before it – but at the same time, like all Kelman heroes, Jeremiah avoids sentimental nationalism at all costs. He constantly dances in other language types and cultural forms he encounters in the whirlpool that is immigrant America. He might well be alienated from the American state machine, but he revels in both his own difference from everyone he meets, and in the playful hybridity of American cultures, always in the plural, always meticulously shown to be different, in stark contrast to the deadening hand of the state machine. In revelling in that multiplicity, flawed as he is, Jeremiah is Kelman’s most garrulous and comic vehicle yet for a bold politics of persistent and risk-taking subversions: Jeremiah subverts Scottishness and all national or state allegiances; like all Kelman heroes he embodies a reconsideration of Glaswegian masculine stereotypes; this in turn entails a liberation from any remaining traces of a working-class work ethic, the ideology which suggests that hard, boring work is an unquestioned good.
A frustrated and unproductive writer in what little spare time he has, Jeremiah gnaws with fervid articulacy at his own isolation. But he is never a misanthrope, resolutely maintaining ideals of socialist and sociable freedoms in the face of stern state policing, and a relationship which recently fell apart. Talking about himself to an unwitting elderly couple in a bar, he sums up his position in Uhmerika:
This young feller with the Red Card, this self-avowed anarchist, unassimilatit socialist and atheist with a hatred of ruling bodies everywhere; religious, monarquic, political, corporate or financial, who gies a fuck, pardon the language, sorry, yet here he is at this very moment in time – sorry about that, I do apologize – why he is so close to ye, is sitting so close, so close ye could reach out yer hand and stroke his face, this seeker of sanctuary within, so close ye could close yer eyes and sense his breath on yer face this furin stranger varmint, congenital member of the evil undead. (p. 356-7)
Oxford Brookes University
Part of this essay is re-written from my book James Kelman (Manchester University Press, 2007).
 Kelman has written about this at length, and has aimed fierce criticism at the BBC: see for example ‘Shouting at the Edinburgh Fringe Forum’ and ‘Elitism and English Literature, Speaking as a Writer’ – both in ‘And the Judges Said …’: Essays (Secker & Warburg, 2002). See also ‘A Reading from the Work of Noam Chomsky’ in this same volume. For discussion of Kelman and Chomsky see Michael Gardiner’s From Trocchi to Trainspotting: Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960 (Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and H. Gustav Klaus, James Kelman (Northcote House and British Council, 2004).
 Michael Gardiner, ‘James Kelman interviewed’, Scottish Studies Review, 5:1 (2004), 102.
 The Manifesto of The Socialist League, Second Edition, annotated by William Morris and E. Belfort Bax (Socialist League Office, 1885), p. 1.
 Some Recent Attacks (AK Press, 1992), p. 72.
 David Pascoe, Airspaces (Reaktion Books, 2001), p. 196.